Humility, integrity, responsibility: Architect Justin Heiser knows the recipe for good design

Among Justin Heiser’s projects are a ridge-top house just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, where rich walnut wood plays against dark gray steel, stone and tile for a sleek, modern finish. Photo: Andrea Hubbell Among Justin Heiser’s projects are a ridge-top house just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, where rich walnut wood plays against dark gray steel, stone and tile for a sleek, modern finish. Photo: Andrea Hubbell

It has long been established that there is an inexorable link between architecture and the community it serves. But, for architect Justin Heiser, that link was never more apparent than in grad school at UVA, when he studied under American architect Samuel Mockbee, a visiting professor from Auburn University.

It was Mockbee who, with a visit to the Rural Studio he created in Alabama, helped drive home Heiser’s vision for a business that combined the art of architecture with the satisfaction of building something from scratch. The Rural Studio program gives students the opportunity to design homes and buildings for poor communities in the western part of the state.

“This way of working emphasizes the dialogue between architecture and construction and how one often informs the other back and forth throughout the entire process of making,” Heiser says, “and, I believe, ultimately creates a richer and more enjoyable project for all parties involved.”

With those ideas in mind, Heiser founded STOA Design+Construction in 2002 with his business partner (and fellow UVA alum), Michael Savage. We asked him to tell us about growing up in Florida, what’s on the board right now and why he loves practicing in Charlottesville.

Photo: John Robinson
STOA’s renovation of a Cape Cod in the city increased its square footage without adding to its footprint. Photo: John Robinson

Why architecture?

Architecture was an obvious path for me. I’ve always had a strong interest in art, especially drawing, as well as building things since I was young. It was only natural for me to choose a profession where I could continue my passion for those things that I enjoyed and which ultimately led me to the design/build formation that we operate under today. I can’t think of a more gratifying way to work than to witness and to have a hands-on experience of making your designs come to life day in and day out. For me, architecture is also about solving problems in an artistic, creative and technical way. Every project presents a new set of problems to be resolved and that keeps it fresh and interesting for me on a daily basis.

Why did you choose to practice in Virginia?

I grew up in Florida and the first time I visited Charlottesville was when I was looking at colleges. I immediately fell in love with the surroundings and the history of the place and couldn’t picture myself anywhere else. Charlottesville is a great town with incredible landscapes, nearby mountains and actual seasons, all of which was so unique for me at the time. After receiving my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture from UVA and working downtown in different firms, I realized I had always wanted to do more in architecture and have a greater role in the realization of the final product. This eventually led to the creation of STOA as it operates today with my partner, Michael Savage, with whom I had attended undergrad and graduate school. We’ve developed a long-lasting friendship and working partnership through shared values in architecture and the desire to have a real hands-on approach with the work.

Photo: Andrea Hubbell
A three-season porch in a 1940s-era Charlottesville home. Photo: Andrea Hubbell

What was your life like as a child and how did it lead you to design?

Growing up, I spent a lot of time outdoors and when I wasn’t playing soccer, I found myself constructing forts, tree houses and bike and skateboard ramps with my rag-tag group of neighborhood friends. Of course, it was always a trial and error method but I think it gave me a real sense of appreciation and desire as to what I could make on my own and have it function the way it was intended. I also had the opportunity to spend my summers living with my grandparents on their farm in north Florida. By no means was the “country” a hotbed of architectural activity, but it did instill a long-lasting appreciation for the simplicity and beauty associated with vernacular buildings, tools or machines that were created for the primary purpose of serving a function. It wasn’t until I was in college that Louis Sullivan’s quote—“Form follows function”—really resonated with me. Spending time in that environment also gave me the exposure to a different way of thinking and living, taught me how to solve problems that may arise and to have the ability to fabricate solutions to those problems with my own hands and materials that are readily available. I believe this was a strong factor in why I eventually chose the design/build career path.

Photo: Andrea Hubbell
A bright, clean kitchen update. Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Tell us about your college studio experience. Was there a standout teacher who had a lasting impact on you?

I was extremely fortunate to have an outstanding group of professors throughout my experience at UVA. However, the one that has had a lasting impact would be the late Samuel Mockbee. Sambo, as he liked to be called, was a visiting professor from Auburn’s Rural Studio whom I studied under during graduate school. He had a way of teaching that did not seem like he was teaching at all but was more akin to sharing stories. But, in fact, after really listening to the slow Southern drawl from the larger-than-life bearded figure, you realized you learned more than you ever thought you could about yourself, architecture and your place in architecture. He represented and advocated for an architecture of humility, integrity and responsibility, which are all things I still strive for in my work today. We had the chance to travel to Alabama with Sambo and live with the Rural Studio for over a week and witness firsthand the work they were doing to help the local community and individuals. It was here that we could see the power of architecture and its inextricable link to the individual and the community that it serves. In a place where the students are doing the design work and all of the construction work on their own, with guidance from professors, it was easy to see how this way of designing and building could be a model for a more professional way of operating. It allows for the adaptation and flexibility in design of ever-changing site conditions, budget, material availability and functionality. This way of working emphasizes the dialogue between architecture and construction and how one often informs the other back-and-forth throughout the entire process of making and, I believe, ultimately creates a richer and more enjoyable project for all parties involved.

On process: How does it begin?

My process begins by meeting with a client and listening to their needs, desires, budget and what they are ultimately hoping to gain from the project. Oftentimes, the client has been thinking about these issues for a long time and this is a moment to just listen and begin to prioritize all of the different—and sometimes conflicting—ideas. From that point, we begin to establish certain parameters based on site, materials and/or budget and then embark on conceptualizing the overall design through a series of sketching and modeling exercises. During this time, we are regularly meeting with our clients to present all ideas and flush out the true heart and meaning of the project. I believe that it is also very important to assess the client’s anticipated construction budget very early on in the process so that we can effectively design within that goal. Given our construction background and experience, we are constantly and continually evaluating our design through all phases in relation to the overall anticipated budget so that we can effectively achieve a final product that fulfills the client’s needs. Every project is different and possesses a unique set of goals and it is important to understand that and go into each project with an open and creative mind.

Photo: Courtesy STOA
A Batesville residence that incorporated an indoor/outdoor fireplace that faces the living room and outdoor pool patio. Photo: Courtesy STOA

What inspires you?

I take inspiration from my surroundings. Oftentimes, the site itself can provide a tremendous amount of inspiration with regards to views, terrain, materiality or the local and embodied history of the site and the community. I’m also inspired by each individual client and the energy and passion they bring to their own project. It’s always fun and immensely rewarding to be such an integral part of the process that ultimately influences and has a direct impact on how someone occupies and utilizes their new built environment.

Photo: Amy Jackson
Justin Heiser. Photo: Amy Jackson

How does the site or sense of place inform architecture for you?

To me, the site is crucial and integral to the project as a whole. That is the case for any new projects on an empty and open site or those that are renovations and additions at which the site is defined by preexisting built conditions. It provides the foundation for the project, dictates how to respond to certain environmental or constructional requirements and is essential in giving the project meaning on a larger scale. The site informs every project in different ways but ultimately gives each one its own life and sense of identity that is particular and rooted in its surroundings.

What’s in the studio at the moment?

We have a very diverse group of projects in the office at the moment both in terms of program and scale. We currently have two mid- to large-scale residential renovation/addition projects under construction in town with several others that are currently in the design phase. Those projects include a couple of smaller-scale interior renovations to improve some outdated living and working situations within the home, as well as a larger-scale residential project that involves some extensive master planning exercises. Other upcoming projects include the renovation and up-fit of a large, older private residence for a new local bed and breakfast, as well as master planning and design for a large farm in Albemarle County. The scope of the farm project will include improving and renovating the existing buildings and facilities, and developing a cultural and educational center and retreat. The project will have a strong emphasis on sustainable agriculture and animal husbandry and will be focused on land reclamation and the restoration of the watershed.

How would you assess the state of architecture in our region?

Over the past decade, it has become more and more interesting. It seems as if there is always a wide range of projects of various scales available and a strong and thriving community of design professionals. I’m happy to be living and working in a place that is becoming more open-minded about modern approaches to design and the desire to think outside the box. We’ve been lucky to have many wonderful clients who have been willing to take risks and be more accepting of our approach to modern design coupled with our passion for building.

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